Award-winning horror author and scary movie expert Gemma Files joins us to talk her work, film inspiration, Hammer horror movies, and more.
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Painted Monsters is a book very much about horror cinema. Your work is highly referential and reverential, but still feels fresh. Did you set out to write stories that reflected your cinematic influences, or was this a happy accident?
OG: A little from column A, a little from column B … By the time I started putting together the table of contents for Painted Monsters, I’d already written several pieces that were highly influenced by film for one reason or another. From there, I stumbled upon the quote from Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968) that serves as the epigraph for the book, and I felt like I could use that as a jumping-off point to construct a collection that was both a survey of my fiction and also kind of a crash course in the history of horror cinema. While most of the other stories were already completed by then and had been published in other places, the title novelette was written explicitly to tie all those threads together and give the collection some thematic unity.
What makes horror movies so alluring, considering their often grisly subject matter? Why do you think horror has such an impact on young people?
OG: That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? I’m not really sure I know the answer. I recently wrote an essay for the March issue of Nightmare Magazine, about writing and consuming horror that isn’t intended to be scary, because I feel like that’s mostly what I do. A lot of my favorite horror movies aren’t particularly grisly or scary; they’re the creaky old black-and-white Gothic chillers from the 30s and 40s, the Hammer horror movies, Vincent Price and Roger Corman doing Poe in vivid Technicolor. Ultimately, for me, I think I just love ghosts and monsters and spooky graveyards and all that stuff, and horror is where the monsters live.
As for why it has such an impact on young people, horror is capable of feeling transgressive—or at least of having that sheen of transgression—in a way that a lot of other genres struggle to manage. It can give you the sense that you’re doing something forbidden, that you’re seeing something you ought not see, and I think that’s a thrill a lot of us are looking for, especially as we’re growing up.
Sometimes your characters are conscious of how their circumstances are similar to horror fiction and cinema. How did you manage to balance the direct and indirect references in ways that were natural to the stories?
OG: It would be great to have a pithy response here that made me look smart, but I think “instinctively” is the real answer. The stories that are particularly self-aware are written in a voice that sounds a lot like the voice inside my own head. I tend to see everything in terms of connections to other things, especially when it comes to movies and fiction, and so I am constantly making comparisons, allusions, and associations.
That said, I did really try to make sure that I wasn’t falling into the trap of just leaving Easter eggs for the reader to find and feel clever about. I try to use allusions and references to horror fiction and cinema as a shorthand, a way to add weight and other dimensions to the story without bogging it down. When I’m writing, I like to lay out a whole bunch of possible explanations or causes or implications for whatever is going on, and then let the reader decide for themselves, and often my allusions let me add those implications without having to commit to them.
The titular “Painted Monsters,” which concludes the collection, is somewhat symbolic in that it burns down the old horror tropes, creatures, and styles and makes way for the undefined new. What trends do you see horror cinema and fiction taking, for better or worse?
OG: Man, who knows? It’s easy to look backward and see trends, it’s much more difficult to look forward and predict them. I think one of the great things that’s happening right now in both horror fiction and film is that the ubiquity of the Internet is giving rise to an increasingly fragmented field, where lots of different people are doing really exciting work taking the genre in all kinds of different directions, and they’re able to find an audience that responds to what they’re doing.
What trends do you see your fiction taking? What ideas, concepts, or even other genres would you like to explore as a writer?
OG: Again, it’s hard to say. I love writing the kinds of stories that went into Painted Monsters, and if audiences keep reacting well to them, I’ll probably keep writing stories that play with film and cinematic influences for as long as I can. But I’d also really like to go back to doing more stuff in the tradition of the great old English ghost stories by guys like M.R. James, E.F. Benson, Robert Westall, etc. I’m already a good chunk of the way toward my third collection—which is shaping up to be more varied and experimental than my previous two—but I’d love to see my fourth be dedicated to those guys, and full of those kinds of stories.
What are you reading now? What are you reading next?
OG: Right now I’m taking a break from contemporary stuff to read a couple of titles from Valancourt Books, who do these wonderful reissues of out-of-print volumes both classic and obscure. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to have a small part in helping them usher J.B. Priestley’s novel Benighted—which is one of my favorite books, and the basis for one of my favorite movies, James Whale’s The Old Dark House—back into print, and I’ve since written a couple of other introductions for them, most recently for The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral by Robert Westall. I just finished reading Wax by Ethel Lina White, which was a pretty delightful little mystery novel with a wax museum setting, and now I’m getting into Fingers of Fear by J.U. Nicholson.
After that is probably Ted E. Grau’s 2015 debut collection, The Nameless Dark, which promises to be utterly fantastic. I’ve read several of the stories where they were originally published, and they’ve all been phenomenal. I’m not sure what’s next after that; my to-read pile is precarious and unpredictable.
What authors, contemporary or otherwise, do you find having an influence on you? Who is challenging you to be better?
OG: Well, of course Mike Mignola, first and always. Those aforementioned English ghost story guys. William Hope Hodgson, Manly Wade Wellman, Fritz Leiber, T.E.D. Klein, Roger Zelazny, Junji Ito, Clive Barker, a lot of the usual suspects. I could make a list of classic weird authors all damn day and still leave somebody out. But I’m also a big fan of writers like Holly Black and M.T. Anderson, which might be less obvious.
There are so many great people working in the horror and weird fiction fields right now that it feels futile to name names, but I think a few of the ones who most consistently make me go, “Shit, I’d better up my game” are probably John Langan, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Stephen Graham Jones, Amanda Downum, and Gemma Files.
Who are a couple of up-and-coming authors that we should be keeping an eye on?
OG: I always hate this question, because I could list dozens of people and still miss some great ones. I already mentioned Ted E. Grau up above. Jon Padgett has a collection coming out from Dunham’s Manor in 2016, and I’ve loved everything that I’ve read by him so far, so I’m really looking forward to that, and to checking out more stuff by Matthew M. Bartlett and Christopher Slatsky sooner rather than later …
What are you writing now?
OG: The answer to this question is almost always “more short stories.” Most writers I know are perpetually plugging away at their next novel, but, while I’m sure I’ll write a novel one of these days, I’m in love with the short form and not in any hurry to leave it. Right now I’ve got a few solicitations in the works for some upcoming anthologies that I can’t yet name, as well as a chapbook for Dunham’s Manor Press that ties in with both the title novelette of Painted Monsters and a project I did with artist Michael Bukowski a while ago…
Where should we be looking for more of your work in the future?
OG: Aside from the aforementioned, I’ve got stories on their way in Swords v Cthulhu from Stone Skin Press and Children of Gla’aki from Dark Regions. I’m also always thinking in terms of the next collection, and I’ve got a lot of material already together for it, so I doubt if it’ll be three years between them this time.
Besides all that, I got the go-ahead from my publisher to give you a scoop on an upcoming project that I haven’t announced anywhere else yet: 2016 will see the publication of a book-length collection of the Vault of Secrets columns on vintage horror cinema that I’ve been writing for Innsmouth Free Press for the past few years. It’ll be called Monsters from the Vault, and it’ll also have some original material, and a cover from an artist I can’t announce just yet, but am very excited to be working with.
This is a review of the version included in the Horror Classics Volume One Blu-ray set.
Discovering the catalog of Hammer Film Productions has been like finding an old trunk in the attic, whose contents are equal parts artifact, treasure, schlock, and guilty pleasure. The British production house’s films are very much an acquired taste, as they represent a curious backstep in the progression of horror cinema—a callback to the Universal and silent era of horror cinema, featuring “classic” monsters such as werewolves, vampires, mummies, and the creatures of Dr. Frankenstein. Hammer worked throughout the late 50s into the 70s to produce a huge volume of work in this vein, eschewing the more modern takes on horror in both content (atomic-age paranoia, psycho killers, aliens) and contemporary style (envelope-pushing Italian gialli, Night of the Living Dead) to remind audiences that old dark houses, spooky castles, graveyards, and men in black capes could still thrill. For this, Hammer’s heyday is often described as the Indian Summer of classic horror.
Taste the Blood of Dracula, directed by Peter Sasdy and starring Christopher Lee as Dracula himself (Peter Cushing is curiously absent here), represents a strong entry in the voluminous Dracula catalog from Hammer. It’s not the first film in the series (see the excellent Horror of Dracula for that honor), but that doesn’t matter. You know who Dracula is: he’s a tall, menacing, charming (in movies, at least) nobleman who likes to use mind control and drink blood (he’s still deciding whether he should run as a Democrat or a Republican in this presidential election). In the film’s opening scenes, a traveling businessman witnesses Dracula’s death (there is no explanation given), and sees him decompose into dried blood. Then he collects the blood, signet ring, and signature amulet, because plot.
Cut to a vapid romance story about a noble young woman and her suitor, who are kept apart by the woman’s domineering, hyper-religious father. But lo! The father is no true Christian man, but secrets away in the night to join his savage friends for the company of whores, liquor, and ultimately, devil worship.
What starts out as a fairly clean-cut and boring Victorian romance soon degenerates into sensationalistic evil. A disgraced noble convinces them to sell their souls to the devil, and thus they purchase Dracula’s dried blood and personal effects from the aforementioned businessman. The young noble promises the men long lives of endless pleasure and power, if they but sell their souls to the devil. Of course these men of public virtue agree to the terms. Their secret group conducts a Black Mass in an abandoned church, which is one of the best scenes in the movie. We get burning candles, a spooky old chapel, a Baphomet on a blanket, and the re-animated blood of Dracula.
It is in this scene, especially, that the conspiracy-minded can begin to wonder: do pillars of the community really haunt abandoned churches late at night, drinking blood to raise evil spirits? What are the filmmakers trying to tell us, exactly?
Illuminati messaging or otherwise, soon enough Dracula is back and out for revenge on the men who survive the secret ritual. It’s not long before he’s hypnotizing young buxom British babes, drinking blood, creating sub-vampire spawn, and being a general nuisance to all involved. The film drags in parts (it’s cheaper to shoot extended dialogue scenes rather than filling the film with special effects), but whenever Lee’s Dracula is on screen, things are equal parts ridiculous and exciting. He manages to be magnetic and revolting at the same time. This is Lee at the height of his powers as the famous vampire. However, the rules about how vampires function are fluid: they seem to be able to summon darkness, possess certain people, or can only be killed with a stake to the heart—or sometimes not. Just go with the flow, here, people. We’ve got a Dracula picture to make here, and we’ve only got five weeks to shoot the damn thing.
As always in these films, the death of Dracula (spoiler alert) is one of the best parts, even if it is ridiculous. But it suits the film, which on the whole is ridiculous, as it alternates between hopeful and nihilistic, creepy and campy. Hammer’s films of this period are often regarded as some of its best (until the early to mid-1970s). While many horror fans may find selections like Taste the Blood of Dracula to be dated, passé, or tame, I’ve come to appreciate the studio’s signature charm which is on full display here. The film is spooky (not scary) fun, with over-the-top performances, great sets and props, and curious social commentary. Oh, and glorious, bright Technicolor blood.
When you’re in the mood for something creepy but don’t want to sit through a film full of cheap jump scares or gore, or if you have a friend with an interest in horror but a low tolerance for excess, Taste the Blood of Dracula will satisfy your thirst. You’ll either love it, think it’s ridiculous, or, if you’re like me—love it despite and because of its creaky, campy charm.
13. The Evil Dead (1981). While its sequel tends to get more love for its polished execution of the same concept, I’ll always prefer the original, probably because I first saw it in eighth or ninth grade in October and it blew my mind. It’s got a desperate, grimy look and sound to it that makes it feel, despite its low production values, somehow more sinister, meaner, more willing to shock. Sure, some of its choices are in really poor taste and probably should have been cut (you’ll know what I mean if you’ve seen it before), but the cheeseball special effects, lo-fi sound design, and camera work are low-budget drive-in horror at its finest.
18. Prince of Darkness (1987). The second film in John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy follows a university research team investigating a bottle of liquid Satan under an abandoned church. This is urban horror, religious horror, and cosmic horror rolled into one, with disgusting special effects, an atmosphere of hopeless, pure dread, and dream (?) sequences that, despite being just grainy footage of a figure in a dark robe emerging from a church, somehow become something truly terrifying. Donald Pleasance and Victor Wong steal the show, and noted Evangelical Christian Alice Cooper makes a few appearances (primarily on the poster).